As the BRICS rise in Africa, Japan seeks to hold its ground

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Brazil’s bilateral relations to Japan have traditionally been dominated by three key aspects: Economic ties, G4 membership and the desire to reform the UN Security Council, and the large Japanese diaspora in Brazil, mostly concentrated in São Paulo. Yet one issue Brazil-watchers in Japan are increasingly interested in is Brazil’s growing presence in Africa, along with that of the other BRICS countries. Japan’s desire to reengage Africa provides an opportunity for Brazil to strengthen ties with the world’s third largest economy.

Similar to policy makers in China, India and Brazil, Japan is increasingly aware of Africa’s economic and strategic importance. Over the past decade, however, Japan struggled to respond to the BRICS’ capacity to make inroads into the African market. Analysts concede that Japan was unable to match China’s vast investments nor Brazil’s astonishing diplomatic offensive. Brazil now boasts 37 embassies in Africa, five more than Japan does.

Among Japanese analysts, there is a palpable sense that efforts over the past 20 years to establish strong ties with Africa have failed - for example, while there are direct flights from Africa to China, Korea, India and Brazil, there is no direct connection to Tokyo.

Prime Minister Abe has now declared regaining ground in Africa one of his key priorities, as became evident during the 5th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 5), which took place last week in Yokohama, and which was attended by the leaders from 50 African nations. In a highly symbolic move, Abe met the majority of leaders individually to discuss bilateral relations - an unusual move in such a large gathering.

The leaders signed the Yokohama Declaration and adopted an action plan to meet the declaration's goals. The plan sets a target of 6-percent growth for Africa's agricultural sector and a doubling of its rice production by 2018. The declaration includes the Government of Japan for the contribution of $550 USD million in support of humanitarian assistance in Africa. In addition, Japan has promised to invest $1,5 billion USD in Africa over the coming years.

Japan's interest in establishing a strong presence in Africa is two-fold. The first is economic: Africa's economy (excluding South Africa) grew at 5,8% annually over the past decade, compared with 3,8% growth in the world economy. Japanese infrastructure and energy firm will try hard to regain lost ground against Chinese competition. At the same time, Japan - a country that needs to import the vast majority of natural resources it consumes - is desperate not to be pushed aside by India and China, which depend on African resources in the long term. Japan also seeks to import rare earth minerals from Africa to reduce dependence on China.

The second interest is political. African nations have 54 votes in the UN General Assembly, which will be of great importance during a new attempt to reform the UN Security Council - a long-term project Japan cares a lot about. Unrestrained support for China across Africa would severely reduce the chances for Japan's permanent membership.

In their quest to counter China's dominance in Africa, Japan is likely to seek partnerships with other emerging powers present on the continent. The project ProSavanna between Brazil and Japan is already underway in Mozambique, which seeks to increase its agricultural productivity. It involves joint research and design exercises, triangular cooperation Mozambique – Brazil –JICA in the Nakala corridor with private sector participation. Brazil is involved in a growing number of trilateral projects, with Japan being one of its main partner in terms of numbers of joint projects. ABC currently manages 88 such initiatives across 27 countries, particularly Haiti, Paraguay and Mozambique. Trilateral cooperation projects already represent one fifth of Brazil’s technical cooperation projects and the portfolio is likely to grow.

In addition, Brazil has, in several cases, proven to be more apt at engaging local populations than Chinese investors. While Brazil's engagement in Africa is still too small and recent to make any definitive statement about its approach, Japanese policy makers may be eager to learn from other actors in Africa that have been able to avoid the mistakes committed by large-scale Chinese actors.

Read also:

Agriculture and food security: Brazil’s chance to assume leadership among the BRICS?

Institutionalizing South – South Cooperation: Towards a New Paradigm?

Photo credit: the japan times / AP